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Farms in 3 state watersheds up for U.S. clean-runoff cash

by Glen Chase | May 22, 2014 at 3:08 a.m.

Some farmers and property owners in three Arkansas watersheds who are interested in improving water quality and reducing sediment and nutrient runoff are seeking a share of a $33 million initiative that's part of a national effort to reduce pollution flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.

Ann Mills, deputy undersecretary for natural resources and environment for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, announced the incentive Wednesday at a meeting of the Mississippi River Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force in Little Rock, a group focused on hypoxia, or oxygen deficiency, in water.

The hypoxia task force, comprising federal agencies and conservation officials from states in the Mississippi River basin, monitors and coordinates efforts to reduce and measure nutrient and sediment runoff that flows down the river into the Gulf. The runoff contributes to an area of the Gulf along along the Texas-Louisiana coast where oxygen levels drop, creating areas where fish and other marine life can't exist. The hypoxic zone covered about 5,800 square miles in 2013.

Tom Christensen, regional conservationist for the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, said that 10 percent of cultivated land within the Mississippi basin accounts for 33 percent of the nitrogen runoff, typically from fertilizers applied by farmers.

By investing in programs such as edge-of-field runoff monitoring and soil-health research, researchers are getting better data on runoff concerns and the practices that effectively reduce them, Christensen said.

"What is clear is that since the [Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative] was announced in 2009, our watershed initiatives have benefited from good science and a commitment to new innovations," Mills said.

In its 2013 reassessment report, the task force said that the basin initiative will have targeted more than $341 million in technical and financial assistance across 123 projects and 640 small watersheds in 13 states, including Arkansas, through 2013.

From 2010 through 2013, Arkansas received $81.8 million for 24 basin-initiative projects involving 1,170 contracts with 80 partners on 287,285 acres.

In addition, the National Water Quality Initiative in 2012 and 2013 allocated $2.7 million for 72 contracts involving 16,381 acres. Wednesday's announcement concerns eligible producers in Cousart Bayou-Little Cypress Bayou, Upper Deep Bayou and Lower Deep Bayou watersheds in parts of Jefferson and Lincoln counties.

Michael Sullivan, state conservationist for the Arkansas office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said during a break in Wednesday's meeting that its important for landowners to realize they can implement practices that can both improve water quality and habitat on their land while having a positive impact hundreds of miles away in the Gulf.

"Even in Arkansas, a water-rich state, people recognize the need to make the best use of water," Sullivan said. Efficient irrigation, cover crops to reduce erosion and fight herbicide-resistant weeds, and protecting water quality are practical steps that producers can take to both reduce costs and become more efficient, he said.

Mills, the USDA deputy undersecretary, who toured several Arkansas farms Tuesday for a firsthand look at conservation projects, said in an interview that conservation efforts by farmers can raise community awareness about how matters such as water quality and wildlife habitat can affect their economy.

"When people understand these conservation practices have a real, measurable, positive effect on their local community, it's easier for them to then think, 'Wow, if it's improving our water quality and aquatic ecosystem health here in Arkansas, then we feel really good about what the impacts will be down in the Gulf of Mexico.'" she said.

Growers, Christensen said, need the technical assistance that agencies such as Natural Resources Conservation Service and state conservation districts can provide to implement and adjust a project to meet a particular parcel situation. The financial incentives help defray the cost as well as offset potential risk.

Farmers "are often operating on margin, trying to be as efficient as possible, and therefore the cost-sharing helps them make that change," he said. But the public investment makes sense because of the potential benefits downstream from the watershed where a particular project might be done, he said. And, he noted that compared with a decade ago, more nongovernmental groups and foundations as well as private industries are now interested in conservation projects.

Christensen said Arkansas is in a challenging situation given its water resources. While it, too, can be subject to drought, as it was in 2012, growers also must address ways to prevent nutrient runoff during periods of heavy rain, as well as avoid depleting underground aquifers, given the high percentage of irrigated fields in the state.

He said initiatives such as improving soil health can help growers deal with matters such as drought.

"A healthy soil retains a lot more moisture than a soil that's not healthy, therefore you can work through droughts better, maintain a crop and need less irrigation water," he said.

Business on 05/22/2014

Print Headline: Farms in 3 state watersheds up for U.S. clean-runoff cash


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